NEW YORK — With what might justly be called a campaign of Napoleonic proportions, the Paris Opera Ballet School descended, all but en masse on New York City on the last weekend in June. By way of lecture demonstrations and performances, the school made so concentrated a statement about the French tradition in ballet that no one who witnessed these events is likely to remain the same.
Presented concurrently with performances at the Metropolitan Opera House by its parent company, the appearance by the Paris Opera Ballet School at Lincoln Center's Juilliard Theater represented the first time the group's syllabus demonstration had been conducted outside Paris.
Except for the exclusion of the most elementary of the school's levels (its Sixth Division), the two-part, daylong presentation included the participation of every level of the dance curriculum.
Beginning with Fifth Division girls, the progression to the First Division boys was regular and steady, with separate segments for folk, modern, mime, adagio and character dancing as well as a sampling of Second Division girls' pointe class.
By the end of the culminating question-and-answer period, the day, which began at 9:30 a.m. and stopped for only two short breaks and a lunch hour, had gone over its scheduled 6-hour length by nearly two hours. All together, 90 pupils (10 to 17 years old) and 15 teachers participated in the day. (At present, the school consists of 120 pupils and 17 teachers, a statistic that made many of the American teachers in attendance groan with envy.)
American dance watchers who automatically looked to Russia for ballet's essential roots, suddenly had strong reason to regard France as something more significant than the place that gave ballet its literal language. The Paris school is uncontestably the oldest of its kind, and these appearances revealed that the French maintain their seniority with notable strength.
Claude Bessy, the school's director since 1972, takes smiling credit for the existence and conception of the lecture/demonstration program, now 10 years old. "My idea," she said happily in an interview. After saying she used no other programs as a model, she noted that "Now, the Russians do the same; they copy us!"
A former Paris Opera Ballet etoile (principal), the still glamorous and gently imperial Bessy notes calmly that just about "everything" in the school today is the result of her renewed attention.
She enumerated "the organization, the particular work, the program of courses, the number of teachers (formerly 8, now 17), the complementary courses all as examples of what exists today by way of her changes.
Regarding the practice of offering modern dance schooling within this bastion of academic tradition, Bessy seemed a bit surprised by the suggestion of conflict with pure ballet standards.
"Yes, they are very different," she said, "but for us it is necessary. The artistic director (Rudolf Nureyev) says 'Do the two' since the mission of the company is to do both traditional, classic repertory and the contemporary." Proportionally, however, the practice of the one is not equally as strong as the other, as Bessy stresses the school's academic classicism foremost.
The calmly mannered but noticeably strong-minded Bessy expresses concern for including participation and discussion with all her teachers on the school's policies. "We have meetings once a month," she said. But in the end even when "somebody doesn't like something, they just can't say 'no.' They can't." She noted similar limits on her own authority: "If Nureyev says something, I can't say 'no.' I must say 'yes.' "
From the look of the repertory she chose for the two-part program that the school performed twice following their class-work demonstrations, the school's director has a stronger taste for the historical French repertory than the company's director does.
Bessy had her charges perform "Soir de Fete," a 1925 ballet with a strong academic accent by Leo Staats, and "Les Deux Pigeons," a 1919 reworking by Albert Aveline of an 1869 Romantic creation by Louis Merante. Both works, with touches of scenery and generally authentic costuming, proved to be appropriate pupil display pieces.
The close links between the Paris Opera Ballet School and the company were most handsomely showcased on the night following the student performances when the school participated in the Grand Defile that climaxed a gala held to honor Nureyev.
The Grand Defile is a Paris Opera Ballet tradition that dates from 1926 and was dramatically revived after World War II by its director, Serge Lifar; it had never before been staged outside Paris. Set to Hector Berlioz's "Marche Troyenne," the ceremony starts with row upon row of pupils--what the Parisians have over the centuries lovingly called les petits rats --treading solemnly but unaffectedly toward the audience from the theater's darkest recess deep upstage.
By the end, once the company itself has followed suit and grandly bowed to the public, the pupils are massed whence they came. Only now their white-clad figures are glowing and refracting the brightened stage lights as their delicate limbs neatly enmesh to suggest a formally pruned thicket, happily complementing the extensive garden of Paris Opera Ballet elegance.